Alumni Spotlight: Oleksandra Tkachenko
Oleksandra graduated three years ago from the Urban Management and Development Master programme at IHS. She comes from Ukraine, and joined the programme in 2015, choosing the Urban Strategies and Planning specialisation. Her projects received Runner-up awards at the international competition for Kenyan cities organised by UN-Habitat in 2016 and at the Schalwijk in Harlem in 2017. Right after her studies, Oleksandra stayed in the Netherlands and worked as an urban planner.
What was your UMD master study experience like?
I made a lot of friends during my study! It was very different from my previous urban planning studies in Ukraine, which were mostly focused on spatial functions and interventions. Even before, when I wanted to look at some local economic aspects in projects, my teachers joked saying that I’m doing politics. In the beginning, I didn’t realise it’s a master of science, because back home we didn’t have this division, so I found out I had to do research, which proved to be very fun.
My thesis analysed the organic urban expansion and community building in Oosterwold. This place has the goal to let the area grow organically, driven by incoming residents. I looked at how these developments influence the future make-up of the neighbourhood.
What happened after you graduated? How was the transition from studying to what you are currently doing?
It was really easy to find a job after graduating. I stayed here, and I think I was in the right place at the right moment. I worked as an urban planner in a big multinational company. I liked the office, the atmosphere and the people I worked with, but after a year and a half, I decided that I don’t want to continue this kind of job. It was the most obvious and easiest opportunity, but I don’t want to be a traditional urban planner and do only significant physical interventions. After this master's, I demand a different attitude from companies. I was a bit taken-aback by doing big housing developments, and I realised how inhumane that could be.
How did your study influence you?
The programme helped me and not, in the sense that after this course, I have a changed mindset and it’s a bit hard to find a company that will suit my values. If you want to change the country, it’s easy to find a job in a big company in the Netherlands, but big companies still follow the old ways of urban development. If you want to work in a small company, which is pioneering, it’s almost impossible as a foreigner, because you have to know the language since you work with stakeholders. There are also visa issues because small companies cannot provide this easily. Now I’m looking for another job and other ways of guiding my life.
What are you doing at the moment? Why did you choose to do this?
I did a small scale project because I had a feeling that I’m not doing what I really like to do. I saw there is a gap that I can fill, so I decided to take the initiative. I organised a competition for a riverfront development project in my hometown.
The trigger was a participatory budget in my city, which showed the weakness of this approach, when a local politician used it for self-promotion, without specifying that the project in question was going to be developed through public funds and not through his own financial support.
This made me want to show people from my city that they had more options, that they deserved more, and that even Ukrainian urban planners had something to offer, so I spent one week of my holiday organising a competition of ideas for the riverfront development. In the end, it took months to get organised and put together a jury.
We started by collecting input from locals, we opened the competition, and we let people vote for the ideas. There was also an expert jury, who took the final decision. Shortly after the competition, I started reaching out to the local authorities and to the local media, who actively ignored us.
A few months later, the topic became hot, and despite organising a local expertise group who was supposed to decide what to do, the project ended up being taken over by an older local architect with a somewhat unrealistic big plan, put together without consultation with stakeholders.
Eventually, I met the person behind the project and - despite his lack of interest in the ideas from the competition - he agreed to talk to me. That is how we arrived at an agreement to use the space of the future construction site for a temporary intervention. There are two things we would like to do: one is a festival with workshops, some things like urban agriculture, talks from foreign experts and the other one is a conference about riverfronts for next year. This is such an important topic, especially because tackling a riverfront project implies so much more than a cosmetic intervention; it means solving many other issues. It’s related to ecological issues and infrastructure and many others.
Overall, I can say that such a project is hard to manage, but I was lucky enough to have the support of local people who met me and offered to help. You have to have someone trustworthy with contacts and a network, so without their contribution and presence on the ground, we wouldn’t have been able to get this far. You can view the results of the competition in the brochure we published here.
What was the biggest challenge after your graduation? How did you overcome it?
I didn’t have any big challenges after graduation, but I’m there now. At the moment, I’m wondering where I want to work. I am aware my search will be longer this time and I keep saying no to myself when I find easy jobs, that are not actually what I want to do. I want to be involved in research, strategy and policy making and I want to talk to people. I don’t want to sit all day in front of a computer doing physical planning. Now I’m searching for such a place, which will allow me to do what I love most.
What would you advise the current students?
Maybe it would be always to ask themselves why they are doing whatever they’re doing at any given point in time so that they don’t forget about having a purpose.